Research ArticleSOFT ROBOTS

A soft, bistable valve for autonomous control of soft actuators

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Science Robotics  21 Mar 2018:
Vol. 3, Issue 16, eaar7986
DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aar7986


Almost all pneumatic and hydraulic actuators useful for mesoscale functions rely on hard valves for control. This article describes a soft, elastomeric valve that contains a bistable membrane, which acts as a mechanical “switch” to control air flow. A structural instability—often called “snap-through”—enables rapid transition between two stable states of the membrane. The snap-upward pressure, ΔP1 (kilopascals), of the membrane differs from the snap-downward pressure, ΔP2 (kilopascals). The values ΔP1 and ΔP2 can be designed by changing the geometry and the material of the membrane. The valve does not require power to remain in either “open” or “closed” states (although switching does require energy), can be designed to be bistable, and can remain in either state without further applied pressure. When integrated in a feedback pneumatic circuit, the valve functions as a pneumatic oscillator (between the pressures ΔP1 and ΔP2), generating periodic motion using air from a single source of constant pressure. The valve, as a component of pneumatic circuits, enables (i) a gripper to grasp a ball autonomously and (ii) autonomous earthworm-like locomotion using an air source of constant pressure. These valves are fabricated using straightforward molding and offer a way of integrating simple control and logic functions directly into soft actuators and robots.

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